On Tuesday, a judge overturned Lamar Johnson's murder conviction, citing "reliable evidence of actual innocence," after he had served almost 28 years of a life sentence. Johnson is 50 years old.
Having been incarcerated for over half his life, Johnson has consistently maintained his innocence ever since he pleaded not guilty to the murder of his friend, 25-year-old Marcus Boyd, in 1994.
Judge David Mason of Missouri stated that the evidence proving Johnson's innocence was "so reliable" that it surpassed the standard of "clear and convincing."
Around two hours following the ruling on February 14th, Johnson was captured by a photograph leaving the courthouse lobby. He expressed gratitude towards the judge and everyone involved in his case while choosing not to answer any additional inquiries.
The decision was applauded by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who, after conducting an investigation with assistance from the Innocence Project, filed a motion in August requesting Johnson's release based on her conviction that he was truthful.
She declared this statement before the assembled press: "Mr. Lamar Johnson. Thank you. You´re free."
Gardner expressed that this is a moment for Johnson to spend with his family and legal team.
"This is Valentine's Day and this is historical," she said.
Despite opposition from the state attorney general's office, which is led by Republicans, efforts were made to keep Johnson in custody.
Madeline Sieren, a spokesperson for the office, stated in an email that the office will not pursue any additional actions regarding the case.
Once more, she defended the office's efforts to keep Johnson incarcerated.
"Is he stated when he was sworn in, Attorney General (Andrew) Bailey is committed to enforcing the laws as written," Sieren wrote.
"Our office defended the rule of law and worked to uphold the original verdict that a jury of Johnson´s peers deemed to be appropriate based on the facts presented at trial."
Following the hearing, Johnson's legal team criticized the state attorney general's office, stating that it continuously maintained Johnson's guilt and was content with him remaining imprisoned until his death.
"Yet, when this State's highest law enforcement office could hide from a courtroom no more, it presented nothing to challenge the overwhelming body of evidence that the circuit attorney and Lamar Johnson had amassed," they said in a statement.
According to his legal representatives, Johnson intends to reconnect with his family and engage in experiences that he was deprived of for the majority of his adult life during his imprisonment.
"While today brings joy, nothing can restore all that the state stole from him. Nothing will give him back the nearly three decades he lost while separated from his daughters and family," they said.
"The evidence that proved his innocence was available at his trial, but it was kept hidden or ignored by those who saw no value in the lives of two young Black men from the South Side."
Reportedly, Johnson will not be eligible for compensation since his case was not dependent on DNA evidence.
Compensation for overturned convictions is frequently provided by several states, but in Missouri, such cases are an exception.
Two masked men shot and killed Marcus Boyd on his front porch in October 1994, resulting in Johnson's murder conviction.
The authorities, including the police and prosecutors, attributed the murder to a disagreement regarding drug funds.
Johnson professed his innocence from the beginning, claiming that he was miles away with his girlfriend at the time of the incident.
Despite Johnson being found guilty and receiving a life sentence, Phil Campbell, the second suspect, admitted to a lesser offense and was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment.
In a hearing held in December, Johnson provided testimony that he was in the company of his girlfriend on the night of the incident. He had briefly stepped out of a friend's house to sell drugs on a street corner several blocks away from the location of the victim's murder.
Erika Barrow, Johnson's girlfriend at the time, affirmed that she had been with Johnson throughout the night, excluding a brief period of approximately five minutes when he went to conduct the drug transaction. She mentioned that it would have been impossible for Johnson to have traveled the distance between the friend's house and Boyd's home and return within five minutes.
The argument for the release of Johnson was focused on a primary witness who retracted his statement and a convict who claimed that he, and not Johnson, had accompanied Campbell in the murder.
James Howard, who is currently 46 years old, is serving a life sentence for a murder and multiple other offenses that took place three years subsequent to Boyd's death.
During the hearing, Howard gave testimony that he and Campbell had resolved to rob Boyd, as one of their acquaintances was owed money for a drug transaction. He further asserted that Johnson was not present during the crime.
According to Howard's testimony, he was the one who shot Boyd in the back of his head and neck, whereas Campbell shot him in the side.
Years ago, both Howard and Campbell signed affidavits confessing to the murder and attesting that Johnson was not a participant in the crime. However, Campbell has since passed away.
During the December hearing, James Gregory Elking testified that he was present with Boyd on the front porch attempting to buy crack cocaine when two individuals, both wearing black ski masks, appeared from around the house and launched the attack.
At first, Elking, who was later imprisoned for several years for bank robbery, claimed that he couldn't identify the masked gunmen who attacked him and Boyd on the front porch.
Despite the lack of identification, Nickerson told Elking that he knew who the shooters were and that he should pick the right guys out.
Elking testified that he felt "bullied" and "pressured" by Detective Joseph Nickerson and named Johnson as one of the shooters. Gardner's office stated that Elking was paid at least $4,000 after agreeing to testify to "help get these guys off the street."
He expressed that his part in sending Johnson to prison has been troubling him.
In December, Nickerson testified that he did not pressure or force Elking to identify Johnson. He claimed that Elking identified Johnson based on the one visible part of the shooter's face - his eyes. Nickerson added that Johnson has a distinguishable difference between his two eyes, which was clearly visible to Elking.
According to Dwight Warren, the prosecutor who tried Johnson in 1995, the main evidence against Johnson, aside from Elking's testimony, was an alleged conversation between Johnson and Campbell overheard in a jail cell. A jailhouse informant, William Mock, claimed at the time that one of them said, 'We should have shot that white boy,' in reference to Elking.
Warren admitted that the case against Johnson would have been weak without the testimony of the jailhouse informant, William Mock.
Johnson's request for a new trial was denied by the Missouri Supreme Court in March 2021 after the Attorney General's office argued that Gardner did not have the authority to request one so long after the case was settled.
A state law was passed as a result of the case, which facilitates prosecutors to obtain new hearings in instances where there is newly discovered evidence of a wrongful conviction.
Last year, Kevin Strickland, who had been imprisoned for decades, was released under that law.
A Kansas City triple killing resulted in Kevin Strickland serving more than 40 years in prison before he was freed last year.